In recent weeks, I’ve struggled with the books that I’ve chosen. The point of this blog, other than to keep me reading, is to find new writers of great mysteries – not crime books, but mysteries. The recent attempts have found serial killers and nice historical stories, but generally speaking, the mystery element has been lacking.
So, with one eye on the next letter in the Alphabet of Crime Fiction, I decided to remind myself of the master of the genre, John Dickson Carr, or rather in this case, his pseudonym Carter Dickson.
In Nine – And Death Makes Ten, nine passengers and a number of crew are crossing the Atlantic from New York during late 1939. Soon, one of the passengers has her throat cut, but luckily the murderer has left two very obvious bloody fingerprints at the scene. One thorough examination of the crew and passengers later, and the fingerprints match no-one on board. There are no stowaways, so how were the fingerprints made? And, more importantly, why? Luckily, the Old Man, Sir Henry Merrivale himself, happens to be the ninth passenger…
I rarely see this book in lists of the best of Carr – well, except mine – but re-reading this reminded me as to how great he was at the height of his powers. There are no obvious tricks, a la Agatha Christie, no technical clues that are not explained, as Ellery Queen did on occasion (e.g. here), and plenty of fully rounded characters. There isn’t a feeling that anyone is being ignored, character-wise, due to them being the murderer, and yet the solution seems to make sense, ludicrous as the situation may be. And what is more, the book is littered with clues that point directly at the killer and yet you won’t spot a single one unless you spot the pivot that the mystery hinges on – and I bet that you don’t.
On a minor point, Carr clearly had trouble with the notion that an ocean liner is full of crew even with no passengers, as he has to resort to a foot-note confirming that when the Captain states that he is sure that none of his crew was involved, he is telling the truth. Even then, later on when a third murder is committed, the Captain states that all of his crew were alibied as they were on duty – in the middle of the night? What about the cook, or the barber?
That’s a minor niggle and one that is easily ignored in a book as well-crafted as this. In the space of 170 pages, there is more story going on here than in most 500 page modern thrillers. Highly recommended and re-reading this has prompted me to, once the Alphabet is over, to do a complete Carter Dickson re-read and review. In the meantime, there’s still Night At The Mocking Widow, The Plague Court Murders, The Punch and Judy Murders, The Red Widow Murders, The Reader is Warned… plenty to keep me busy in the weeks to come.